On Tuesday, during a tense argument over Donald Trump, Jeffrey Lord, CNN's dedicated Trump supporter, repeated a myth — one that's very often said on the right — to Democrat Van Jones: "We're all Americans here. You are dividing people. This is what liberals do. You're dividing people by race. This is what liberalism is all about."
The claim is that liberals make issues into race issues when race isn't actually a factor, causing Americans to fracture and divide by racial and ethnic identity. It's largely a response — sometimes voiced as "All Lives Matter" — to the Black Lives Matter movement's protests over racial disparities in police shootings and the criminal justice system more broadly.
As Lord told Jones, "We have to be passionate about making sure that, as Robert Kennedy used to say, that this country is colorblind. We have to, as President [John F.] Kennedy used to say in that Birmingham speech, that race has no place in American life or law. That's what we have to do. And we have lost that totally, because the Democratic Party insists on dividing people by race. And it's wrong. It's morally wrong."
But the claim is total bullshit.
For one, anyone can be part of the racial justice or Black Lives Matter movements, no matter their own race. There are conservatives, particularly of the libertarian brand, who identify as racial justice activists. It just so happens that these movements are more common on the more racially and ethnically diverse left, particularly among Democrats. So candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders propose policies that address systemic racism, while Republicans like Donald Trump invoke racist innuendo.
But more importantly, people who raise racial justice issues are not creating divides. They are reacting to divides that already exist and pointing them out to, hopefully, fix them.
Consider the full context of the Kennedys' comments, which Lord alluded to. Here is what John F. Kennedy wrote about society being colorblind in a special message to Congress:
"Our Constitution is color blind," wrote Mr. Justice Harlan before the turn of the century, "and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens." But the practices of the country do not always conform to the principles of the Constitution. And this Message is intended to examine how far we have come in achieving first-class citizenship for all citizens regardless of color, how far we have yet to go, and what further tasks remain to be carried out by the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Federal Government, as well as by state and local governments and private citizens and organizations.
Kennedy was not saying that America should be colorblind right now by ignoring all race issues. He was saying that it would be good if society could eventually get to this point. But to do that, he noted, we have to actually change our policies and culture to put a stop to racism and discrimination.
Indeed, the Kennedys supported civil rights legislation to address systemic racism — particularly segregation and the denial of voting rights to black Americans.
Racial justice advocates are merely continuing this ideal by pointing out the many ways Americans of color are still discriminated against — in the hopes of prompting policy reforms and cultural shifts to help eliminate systemic racism.
Is that necessary? Well, consider the many racial disparities in the US criminal justice system.
An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind found that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete because it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies across the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
Black people are also much more likely to be arrested for drugs, even though they're not more likely to use or sell drugs. And when black defendants are convicted for drug offenses, they get longer sentences for the same crimes. A 2012 report from the US Sentencing Commission found that drug trafficking sentences for black men were 13.1 percent longer than those for white men between 2007 and 2009.
The list goes on and on just for criminal justice, and it gets even longer when considering other aspects of US society. Many white Americans, such as Lord and other Trump supporters, may refuse to acknowledge that these disparities exist and are problematic, perhaps because they prefer a power structure that favors white Americans — but these disparities are real nonetheless.
One can of course disagree about how to fix the disparities. Critics of Black Lives Matter argue the disparities represent not law enforcement's wrongdoing but other problems in minority communities, where crime and poverty are higher. Racial justice activists, meanwhile, point to research that shows that subconscious racial biases exist among police officers and that higher crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons.
So there's a debatable spectrum of possible causes and solutions.
But one thing that's not going to fix these disparities is ignoring them. That's why racial justice advocates bring these issues up. It is not about dividing America, but about acknowledging divisions that already exist — to perhaps one day get to the point where society really is as colorblind as the Kennedys wished.